by Alexander Freeling


It tingles. In Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habitalongside the more familiar stories of learnt behavior, impulse control, and the expectation-reward arc which makes the infant grab the marshmallow and the flâneur paw at the cashmere, there’s a story about toothpaste.

How do you sell more Pepsodent? Make brushing habitual. And how do you form a habit? Connect a cue to a reward. Bind one sensation to another. So Claude Hopkins, Duhigg tells us, focused his advertising budget on drawing an arc, from the filmy feeling of unbrushed teeth to the squeaky, slightly raw feeling of just having brushed. The citric acid and mint oil in Pepsodent irritated the gums. And Hopkins’ masterstroke was to make that mild irritation the reward. Teeth that feel clean. Enjoy brushing your teeth. It doesn’t sting, it tingles.

The story is so perfect that I wonder how far it’s been refracted through the post-Don Draper romance of charismatic ad-man storytelling. But one thing is certain: we have learned to enjoy the tingle of toothpaste, even though a drink or perfume or t-shirt that caused the same reaction would cause upset if not alarm. But who feels uncomfortable with freshly brushed teeth? Comfort isn’t the same thing as the absence of stimulation. It’s the stimulation we expect, hope for, and have grown to like. 

The same is true of clothes. As the temperature plummeted, I recently bought a knee-length winter coat. Weighing three and a half pounds, and swishing around my knees, I felt like I was wearing both a dress and a backpack. Warm, but hardly comfortable. Two weeks later, of course, I switched to a thigh-length waterproof trench to go out in a storm and felt cold and naked. How could I have bought something so short, I wondered as my knees got soaked. The coat hasn’t got any lighter, but I never feel its weight now.

A similar point is made, more rigorously, in an essay by Anne Hollander on the history of corsets. While it’s a cliché for us to sympathize with the Victorian women who wore these rigid undergarments, she notes, not all those women would have necessarily agreed with us that they were uncomfortable. From what evidence we have, some at least reported feeling supported and empowered. It’s easy enough to tell a story about how such women were just victims of patriarchal expectations, or their own vanity, or unrealistic body expectations. And maybe they were. But how convincing would they find that, coming from people who seek out toothpaste for the irritation?

Rigidity only feels uncomfortable when you see it as restraint. The man who wears a suit once a year finds it as stiff and awkward; the man who wears one every day feels supported and protected. The explosion of athleisure is often cast as comfort over formality. But that’s to naturalize the choice (and cast aspersions at our sweatpanted brothers, as if cotton flannel and drawstrings are lazier than wool flannel and side adjusters.) Comfort is being accustomed to the state you’re in and feeling happy with it, no more. Enjoy the easy pants this Winter, and enjoy the tailoring.